The diaconate is one of the most ancient offices of the Church, dating all the way back to the time of the Apostles. The Church has always recognized the seven men elected by the Apostles in Jerusalem to be the first group of deacons (Acts 6:1–6). Although interestingly, they are not explicitly referred to as “deacons” in the Acts, this title nevertheless arises from their ministry (diakonia) to serve (diakonein). It follows then, that a man chosen for this is a diakonos, meaning servant, or deacon. Furthermore, in the First Letter to Timothy, St. Paul instructs his disciple Timothy that deacons “must be dignified, not deceitful, not addicted to drink, not greedy for sordid gain, holding fast to the mystery of the faith.” (1 Tm 3:8–9).
In the Church’s tradition, deacons receive the bishop’s laying on of hands “not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service,”(1) serving the Body of Christ in charity. However, exactly which ministries are proper to the diaconate have always been somewhat vague and have varied through the centuries. Church Fathers agreed that the ministries of deacons include proclaiming and preaching the Gospel, assisting at the Mass, bringing the Eucharist to the sick and dying, and operating the Church’s corporal works of mercy. St. Thomas Aquinas, however, had a somewhat different understanding. He was of the opinion that deacons’ ministries lie primarily in proclaiming the Gospel at Mass and catechesis, and should only assist the celebration of sacraments.(2) In contrast, in the contemporary Latin Church, deacons can routinely officiate at weddings, baptisms, and funerals, as well as bless sacred objects for private devotion.
A related theological quandary also arose in the history of the Church regarding the nature of the diaconate, as there is nothing listed above that cannot be done by a priest. In fact, baptism and bringing the Eucharist can even be done by lay people when the situation demands, and certainly every Christian should help the poor. For this reason, theologians over the centuries have thought long and hard over the question of whether diaconal ordination is a real sacrament. If so, what does it mean?
In the twentieth century, the Church’s magisterium has done extensive clarifications on the nature of diaconate. Fundamentally, deacons share one and the same sacrament of holy orders as bishops and priests, albeit different in degree. Thus, as clergy, deacons facilitate the pastoral ministries of the local bishop, thus they participate in the governance of the Church, closely connected with the ministerial priesthood. The diaconal ministries are thereby ecclesiastical and apostolic in character and therefore distinct from lay ministries. As such, through the laying on of hands, deacons are bound “more closely to the altar”(3) and receive a “sacramental grace.”(4) Pope Paul VI goes one step further by affirming that the diaconate possesses “its own indelible character and its own special grace.”(5) Specifically, this sacramental character “configures the one ordained to Christ, who made himself the deacon or servant of all,” and the sacramental grace is the gift of strength to dedicate themselves to the service of people of God.(6)
Reflecting on these lofty ideals, I cannot help but become keenly aware of the weightiness of my ministry as a deacon, namely serving the people of God in the configuration of Christ. A deep gratitude also wells up in me, that God should deem me, a lowly servant, worthy to be entrusted with this very serious responsibility. This is indeed a tremendous honor that our gracious Lord has bestowed on me. Nevertheless, cognizant of my own weaknesses and inadequacies, I know that this is gratuitous gift of God, as I cannot possibly merit any of it. Thankfully, when I spiritually prepared for my diaconal ordination, I had the opportunity to make pilgrimages to the churches connected to two ancient deacon martyrs, Sts. Stephen and Lawrence, in Rome. Their fidelity and fearlessness inspired me to courageously respond to the Lord’s call to serve. Through the intercession of these martyrs, may the Lord grant me the fortitude to proclaim the Gospel, and be ever more faithful in serving His people in charity.
Watch Br. Gregory’s Diaconate Ordination video here
(1) Statuta Ecclesiae Antique, 371, famously quoted in Lumen Gentium, 29.
(2) Thomas Aquinas, ST 3.67.1.
(3) Second Vatican Council, Ad Gentes, 16.
(4) Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, 29.
(5) Paul VI, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, AAS 59 (1967): 698. See also: Paul VI, Ad Pascendum, AAS 54 (1972): 536.
(6) Congregation for Catholic Education, Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons, 2.7. See also: Catechism of Catholic Church, 875, 1570.
Br. Gregory Augustine Liu, O.P. | Meet the Student Brothers in Formation HERE